The drama industry is no stranger to being criticised for promoting dangerous narratives and you'd think writers, producers and actors would have gotten the message by now. Surprisingly (but not really so surprisingly), many are still adamant on creating content that depicts violence and normalises its acceptance. Feroze Khan and Sana Khan's ongoing drama Aye Musht-e-Khaak is the latest proof of just how much some dramas still cling to tiresome stock characters who glorify such terrible behaviour in the name of love.
Aye Musht-e-Khaak is a GEO TV drama written by Maha Malik, produced by Abdullah Kadwani and Asad Qureshi and directed by Aehsun Talish. Starring Feroze and Sana as the 'heroic' leads, the drama is described as "a riveting tale of the longstanding fight between good and evil, as two completely different individuals with opposing approaches towards life come together and the way the path of righteousness overpowers the wrongdoings".
Aye Musht-e-Khaak is not the first drama in the world (or Pakistan) to pit good against evil in a marital relationship, nor is it likely to be the last. Its problem is not in the cliche plot, rather it's the violence that has been seamlessly incorporated within the narrative through the main character Mustajab (played by Feroze). In Aye Musht-e-Khaak's own words, "things take a surprising turn in Mustajab and Dua’s life when Mustajab falls in love with Dua. However, Dua refuses to reciprocate the same feelings. Mustajab who is not accustomed to refusal becomes agitated and his liking towards Dua soon turns into obsession. Mustajab forgets to distinguish between love and stubbornness while a series of lies and deceit continues."
In the 15 episodes that have aired so far, we've seen Mustajab show disturbing levels of violence towards others around him. The creators of Aye Musht-e-Khaak may argue that Mustajab's violent streak is a symptom of the very moral weakness that Dua's goodness is meant to overcome in time, hence becoming a lesson in what kind of person one shouldn't be. However, the desire to show and rectify a morally flawed character is no excuse to depict the extreme and troubling forms of violence we've seen in multiple episodes so far. Dramas can show a bad natured man on screen without making him violent. It really isn't that hard.
And if they must show a violent person, why is he the hero? Will he be redeemed for his violent tendencies or will the audience be expected to forget about his shortcomings à la Aswad in Hum Kahan Kay Sachay Thay?
If this aspect of Mustajab isn't bad enough, the character of Dua, despite being the epitome of goodness because of her "strong values and morals", is astoundingly forgiving of the things Mustajab does in the name of love, things that should have ideally enraged her if the plot of "righteousness overpowering wrongdoings" is followed to a T.
I don't want to know anything. If he wants to distance me from everyone and make me his, then I will be his and his alone — Dua in Aye Musht-e-Khaak
Take the troubling encounter between Mustajab and Dua after their nikah for instance. Dua tells her new husband that she's uncomfortable with progressing in their relationship because they haven't had their rukhsati yet. Mustajab doesn't take Dua's words very well at all — he grabs her violently and shakes her, so much so that Dua desperately tells Mustajab to stop because he's hurting her.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Mustajab asks Dua. "I'm trying to come close to you. I'm trying to make you mine, to feel you, to completely own you. Am I not attractive to you at all? You're not trying to close the distance between us one bit!"
The drama is littered with examples of Mustajab's violence. He has a physical altercation with Dua's brother Dayaan (played by Asad Siddiqui) because Dayaan has discovered something troubling about Mustajab's past. "I know she is your sister," he says to Dayaan. "But now my bond with her is something that's unbreakable. If you try to create any sort of misunderstanding between us both, you'll face the consequences."
Dua catches Mustajab threatening her brother whom she loves very much and you'd think this incident — as well as the troubling thing she finds out about Mustajab from his mother — would be enough for her to question her husband's actions. Even her brother wants Dua to question Mustajab. However, Dua chooses to remain oblivious to what's staring her right in the face.
"Let me make this relationship work till my last breath," Dua perplexingly says to her brother. "I don't want to know anything. If he wants to distance me from everyone and make me his, then I will be his and his alone. He wants to take me to America, I'll go. He wants to keep me there forever, I'll stay there. Us mashriki larkiyan [girls from the East], we melt when we're given love. We become a river and that river always flows towards the sea. Mustajab is my sea."
Trigger warning: the next scene shows extreme physical violence towards a woman and discretion is advised. This particular exchange between Mustajab and his ex-girlfriend Shiza (played by Nimra Khan) sparked outrage on social media for obvious reasons. Mustajab and Shiza have a fight during which Mustajab physically attacks her, going as far as choking Shiza.
In episode 15, Mustajab explodes with unstable rage in a scene with his mother Shakeela (played by Iffat Omar). He drives his car in a dangerous and erratic manner while shouting at his mother in a rage and soon after they have a car accident. The root of Mustajab's road rage is Dua not reciprocating his love in the manner he desires. Her rebellion of sorts leaves him unhinged and the scene leaves viewers incredibly uncomfortable and wondering why a grown man can't express his reservations and resentments in a more stable manner.
The drama industry has already been told before that showing such content is problematic in a society that already has deep seated issues with violence, harassment and abuse. According to UNFPA Pakistan, a staggering 32 per cent of women have experienced physical violence in Pakistan and 40 per cent of married women have suffered from spousal abuse at some point in their lives. The drama industry — and the entertainment industry in general — needs to be cognisant of this troubling reality. Content needs to walk a tightrope between entertainment and responsibility, between depicting how things are and how they should be.
Is there anything wrong with writing characters that are the epitome of being morally flawed? Not at all. Dramas are of course going to reflect a measure of reality. It's all part of the game. While there is nothing wrong with showing flawed characters on television, it needs to be done with care and responsibility. Be wise to the fact that viewers can easily mimic what they see.
Even if characters are physically violent, their acts of violence do not need to be shown in the drama. This penchant for physical violence can be alluded to without being shown, and even then a trigger warning should be prominently flashed on screen. The audience should be made aware about scenes with dialogues or shots that feature physical altercations. TV channels can advise viewer discretion and perhaps even condemn the negative behaviour in a simple one-line message on screen the same way they do for smoking.
Make your audience aware of how certain scenes are only for older and mature viewers. Young children, who are highly impressionable, should not be exposed to physical violence through entertainment. Advise parental guidance before the start of the episode, or even in the middle before a particular scene so that older folks have time to get children away before they see or hear something they shouldn't.
Just because you can show violence on screen doesn't mean you should. Scenes with extreme forms of violence should be erased from scripts entirely. What Mustajab did to Nimra in that ugly fight scene should never have been shot. If a good looking and "charming" character (played by an actor who is especially popular and idolised in the country) is shown to have a tendency for such extreme violence, these acts will seem less disturbing to the audience and more "charming" to replicate, especially if the character gets a pretty girl like Dua at the end. The creators of Aye Musht-e-Khaak could have easily made Mustajab a morally corrupt man with weak faith without making him so physically violent.
Even more importantly, the creators shouldn't have made Dua so impervious to violent behaviour. Her character, which supposedly represents "good" in the show, could have easily called Mustajab out, and the audience would have taken it well. Viewers of Aye Musht-e-Khaak are fond of Dua because her of strong faith. It would have been a great message if Dua drew the line and came to her parents place several episodes earlier than episode 13. There were countless moments before this turning point where Dua could questioned Mustajab's actions.
Dua's desire to ride out the relationship till the very end is a dangerous trope that dramas are all too fond of using. Ultimately, this trope is an extension of real-life societal expectations that women should bear all kinds of injustice after marriage no matter what because it is the 'patient' and righteous thing to do so, even when these injustices take the ugly shape of emotional and physical abuse. That a good mashriki larki is one who makes necessary 'sacrifices' of self interest, all for the sake of the sustaining marriage and feeling loved and more often than not, ends up a victim of this 'love'.
We've said it before and we'll say it again. It is time dramas stop glorifying violence. Let's stop making characters accept violence in the name of being khandani [family], sughar [demure] and mashriki [Eastern] women. It's time to put this dangerous and done-to-death plot element to rest. Glorifying violence isn't entertainment and it's not what we want or need to see. When will our drama makers learn?